Masters leaderboard will feature top players

There is no truth to the rumor that threesomes will be abandoned at The Masters this year and contestants will stride to the first tee at Augusta National Golf Club two-by-two to be greeted by an honorary starter in a long white beard standing in front of a rather large boat.

The elements won't dare interfere with this Masters. The rain that has been following the PGA Tour like a groupie in search of her next ex-husband just can't get on the bus and cruise down I-20. It wouldn't be right. The first three months of the season have been such a compelling prelude to the first major championship of the year that this event has to unfold unrained upon. Is it too late for the good members of Augusta National – who have always placed the purity of the event above all else – to construct a dome?

Back-to-back Monday finishes on tour have more than a few players in the field at The Masters arriving in Augusta with their rain gear still damp. But more important is the fact that almost all of the best players in the world are arriving for the tournament at or near the top of their games. Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh, Ernie Els, Padraig Harrington, Adam Scott and David Toms all come into The Masters having already won this year. The major championship that history has shown is the least likely of the Grand Slam events to produce a fluke winner and the most likely to present a memorable moment seems destined this year to give us something even more special than it usually offers. There will be no raining on this parade. Maybe.

Actually, the only thing more annoying than how wet the spring has been in most parts of the country is the fact that weather forecasters have become about as accurate as the folks doing exit polls have been in the last two presidential elections. The prognosticators say there is no more than a 30 percent chance of rain any day at this year's Masters, which means you can just about guarantee being ankle deep in mud by Friday morning. Actually, if there is any venue that can stare down the elements, it is Augusta National. Part of what makes The Masters special is that not only is it played on the best course in the United States but it is also the best-run tournament anywhere. Precisely because a private club holds this event, the players and the fans come first, and the sponsors and TV rights holders are given a backseat. How refreshing is that?

Every time it seems as if The Masters has outdone itself in terms of drama – how about the improbable Ben Crenshaw victory in 1995, followed by the incomprehensible Greg Norman collapse in 1996, followed by the unbelievable Tiger Woods runaway in 1997? – it finds a way to top itself. The only thing that can top last year's delicious showdown between Mickelson and Els on Sunday would be a similar situation involving Woods and a couple of other big names.

Perhaps we will see a leaderboard like 1986 – maybe the most memorable Masters ever – when 46-year-old Jack Nicklaus held off Tom Kite, Norman, Seve Ballesteros and Tom Watson. Or maybe it will be like 1975, when Nicklaus outlasted Johnny Miller, Tom Weiskopf, Hale Irwin and Watson. Or perhaps it will hark back to any of those wonderful clashes involving Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player in the early 1960s. Among golf tournaments, The Masters is like the seventh game of the World Series: It always seems to create an image burned forever into the collective memories of those who witness the event. And I'm thinking the memory Magnolia Lane has in store for us this year will somehow involve Tiger.

Strangely, the most memorable of the eight major championships Woods has won have been runaways – 12 strokes at the 1997 Masters, 15 strokes at the 2000 U.S. Open and eight strokes at the 2000 British Open. In fact, the only times Woods has been involved in one-stroke affairs in a major were his victory over then 19-year-old Sergio Garcia in the 1999 PGA Championship, his defeat of Bob May in a playoff at the 2000 PGA and a loss to Rich Beem in the 2002 PGA. Missing in the Woods Era has been a really scintillating showdown between The Man and the other top players of his generation. That's what I think The Masters has in store for us this year.

Grab a beverage and fasten your seat belts. Last year's Masters was one of the most memorable ever, and that can only mean one thing: This year's will be even better. I'm thinking we will see a leaderboard Sunday that will look a little like the Official World Ranking: Singh, Woods, Els, Mickelson, Retief Goosen, Harrington and Scott. Almost certainly there will also be a Cinderella thrown into the mix, but that's just to add an element of heartbreak to the drama. This is not going to be Herman Kaiser stealing a green jacket from Ben Hogan.

There is no way the winner of this year's Masters is not going to be one of the top players in the world. That's simply the way the season is going. The rain will stay away. Martha Burk will stay away. The sponsors will be back. And The Masters will once again manufacture a moment that will leave us shaking our heads wondering how it will ever top what has just happened, knowing full well better memories lie ahead. This is The Masters. It is always good, and usually great. I'm thinking this year it will be truly special.

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